HA! By Gordon Sheppard
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 869 pp, $39.95, hardcover.
By John Burns
Last year’s announcement that the Canada Reads award would fall to Prochain Episode, a 1965 novel from Québécois Hubert Aquin, finally (and happily) settled a question the writer raised when he and his .12-gauge shotgun made a one-way trip to a Montreal convent way back in 1977: namely, who cares?
Aquin’s suicide—blamed at various times on his obscurity, neglect, the political climate, his past lives, a cultural inferiority complex, a sexual inferiority complex, poor health, hypochondria, and alcoholism—can at least be cleared of a failure of artistry. Cold comfort to him, perhaps, but English-speaking Canada now seems prepared to catch up to his violent, fugitive style, his difficult, revolutionary language, and his conviction that in his four novels, his essays, and his stories he wrote in support of a subjugated people.
There was nothing simple about Aquin’s life, nothing simple about his books. It’s fitting, then, that there be nothing simple about his death and its repercussions. Or, as Québécois filmmaker Jacques Godbout tells Gordon Sheppard, a friend and colleague of Aquin’s who’s been considering that gunshot for the past quarter-century: “His suicide has had the effect of causing you to produce a book, mon cher! If the book is good, it will be in effect the making of the work that he attempted to create with his suicide. So the book is important; and it should be made in the way he would have done it. That is, you can’t offer a definitive explanation of why he did it: you can only offer the twenty-two facets, the seventy-five clues.”
Sheppard, a French-speaking Anglo, goes a whole lot further than that in HA!, interviewing, over almost 900 pages, scores of friends, intellectuals, witnesses, family (heartbreakingly), artists, lovers, and more, all to resolve the book’s subtitle: A Self-Murder Mystery. Sheppard’s irresolute postmortem, his open-ended inquest, is perhaps the most fascinating study—fictive or not—of Canadian letters I’ve ever read. HA!, like its namesake, confounds easy assumptions, as his widow does when she explains her complicity: “He really made a success of his death and I am happy about that. If I may say so, we made his suicide together.” It is brutally sad, as in the few interviews with Aquin’s son, nine at the time of his death and bewildered. It is maddening in its slippery use of self-conscious translation, of pseudonymity, of “fiction created from a transposition of the facts gathered in the testimonies”.
Aquin would have been delighted.
Bill Richardson interviews Gordon Sheppard on Richardson’s Roundup on CBC Radio One Friday (February 27), after 2 p.m. For info on this year’s Canada Reads winner, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing, visit cbc.ca/canadareads/.